Meet the IBEX Team: Eberhard Möbius
Dr. Eberhard Möbius' quest to explore the Universe has taken him across the world, and takes his ideas into outer space!
A co-investigator of the IBEX mission, Eberhard uses his expertise to build essential components of the "eyes" of the IBEX spacecraft. These detection instruments have parts that Eberhard describes as a "retina" and an "iris" that will "see" the interstellar gas that marks the boundary of the Solar System.
Building spacecraft instruments that can survive rocketing out of Earth's atmosphere and into the freezing cold temperatures of space and still make accurate measurements takes a lot of trial and error. Currently, Eberhard and his team of engineers and students are creating a prototype, or a "first draft", of the time-of-flight detector, or the "retina", for the IBEX-Lo sensor. They also recently redesigned the front part, or the "iris", for both sensors in response to problems with the old design. It is complicated, time-consuming, but excitingly challenging work. "We have a tough road ahead, making sure our optics work well so that we get a detailed picture and can pinpoint where the interstellar gas comes from," Eberhard said.
Now a physics professor at the University of New Hampshire specializing in plasma physics, Eberhard began his astronomy career in his native Germany. He attended German high school, or gymnasium, and went to the University of Cologne to study physics. He finished his degree in experimental plasma physics with an astronomy minor at Universitšt Bochum, where he also earned the equivalent of an American PhD. Later, he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany before accepting a position at the University of New Hampshire. He moved to New Hampshire in 1990.
As a young child, Eberhard was interested in exploration - but not space exploration! "The first time around, when I was asked, I said I wanted to be an engineer building ships. I had read books about exploration [of the sea]. I lived near Cologne, and my parents said, 'You'll have to live by the coast!'" Eberhard said. He laughed, pointing out that he now explores space from the United States, across the ocean from Germany!
Eberhard's inspiration for becoming an astronomer arrived in the mail. "I had a subscription to a German kids' magazine that translates into 'A Bunch of Unruly Kids'. The second issue of it was in early 1958, and this issue was devoted solely to space. I still have that issue. The whole thing was so exciting! To go into space, to see what's out there - I was fascinated by that," he said.
A great teacher and science books for young people kept Eberhard interested in physics throughout school. "Our math and physics teacher, whom we had for quite a few years, organized an astronomy club, and helped greatly to keep that inspiration going. He was a teacher interested in lots of things, and his brother was an astrophysicist. He was really a great teacher - very demanding, but that worked out very well," Eberhard said. Eberhard's grandparents, who lived in East Germany, then a separate communist country, were able to send him science and technology books over the border for Christmas and birthdays, which he loved to read.
Today, Eberhard is still fascinated and perplexed by some of the astronomy questions he and his friends discussed as children. "When I was 12, playing with my friends, we got in this discussion: 'Is the Universe finite like a room with a wall? If so, what's beyond that? If there's another room with a wall, what's beyond that, and so on?' It didn't make sense to us. Now I bring it up in an interdisciplinary class
I teach with a philosopher and a biologist about cosmology and our place in the world, exploring questions, such as, why are we here, etc. I tell the class that I am still confused about those questions, but just on a higher level," he said.
Explaining what we know about the Universe, discussing what we still don't know, and working with a team to discover more about the Universe are Eberhard's favorite parts of his job. "When I give a talk to the public, that's always very exciting and enjoyable. I also greatly enjoy interdisciplinary teaching, especially the discussions that come up and nobody wants to leave when class is over because the students are still in the middle of the discussion. I also like it when I work one-on-one with a student explaining a problem and the light goes on and they understand. Also, when we see that the engineers who are working on [instruments for the spacecraft] are coming together, and they show you the hardware [that they've built]," Eberhard said.
Having lived, studied and worked in Germany all his life, Eberhard faced the challenge of adapting to a United States university. "It was challenging when I came over to the U.S. into a faculty position. Here, [to get money] for any research, you have to write grants and proposals. In Germany, projects get funded differently. I can consider myself fortunate to have had great mentors to get me going. It was a challenge, but looking around at the choices I had at the time, I made the right choice in coming to the University of New Hampshire," he said.
As a professor, Eberhard helps students interested in science and technology careers to make the right choices in their lives. His advice for students wishing to pursue careers in science is to follow the advice his teachers gave: "Get a good broad physics education, because with that, you can make connections to different disciplines, which is really important. If you want to pursue a specific route, you can do it when you go to graduate school. I studied plasma physics, and then went into space science! Even if you like working with data, you still have to know about the instruments that collect data, and you still need to have a theoretical background. Don't get too narrow," he said.
Eberhard is extremely excited to be working on the IBEX project, and thinks that in the future, scientists will continue to explore the "new frontier" of the interstellar medium
. "The IBEX mission has been something I've been looking very much forward to. I'm really happy that we are doing it, and I find it really exciting and really love to do it, even thought it's a grueling pace," he said.
In spite of the fast pace and pressures of his job, Eberhard keeps himself centered by hiking, making videos, among them animations for his classes, and by practicing yoga with his wife, a yoga teacher. "Yoga keeps me going and lets me look aside from technology and science. Without doing yoga, I couldn't keep up with the daily pace and stress of this occupation. I'm grateful to my wife that she keeps doing yoga, which gets me back into balance."
For Eberhard, the balance he takes from the Eastern practice of yoga goes hand-in-hand with the inspiration he takes from a Western scientist, Albert Einstein - not only for his genius in describing the physical world through science, but also for his belief that science cannot describe everything there is to know about the Universe. "I look to Einstein, not only from the physics point of view, but also from a spiritual one. Einstein had a spiritual side by realizing that we cannot explain everything from science, and that there is another side to us," he said.